Tuesday, July 12, 2011

One Click from Disaster: Errorproofing Web Interface Designs

Just recently I wrote about how many rogue tweets are the fault of poor user interface design in Rogue Tweets: Where They Come From; How to Stop Them. In early 2010 I also wrote about this topic in When No Communication is Best: Speed Skating, Morphine Overdoses and the Wings Fall Off Button. But I see that the lessons of errorproof interface design are not being learned very quickly.

Many rogue tweets with serious consequences are caused by people tweeting a message to the wrong account. But if you look at excellent clients like Tweetdeck or web services like Hootsuite the choice of account is made by clicking on tiny icons that are very close together. It is only a matter of time before you send a message the wrong way. On the Twitter web page, too, many people confuse the post, search and direct message spaces. The usual solution for these errors is to fire the operator and the agency, but I don't much effort into improving interface design.

Another example appeared this month when I tried the new shortmail.com email service. This interesting new idea in email limits all messages to 500 characters and adds the potentially very useful feature of hosting public open letters on their site. The only problem is that to choose between a secret message and a public one there are two "radio" buttons, so it is very easy to click the wrong one. In some cases you are literally one click from disaster.

To be fair I have to add that when I discovered this risk and tweeted about it the people atShortmail responded immediately to the feedback and are working to improve this aspect of the design, but I am still surprised that these problems still arise.

We can learn many lessons from the world of aviation where errorproofing aircraft controls, operational procedures and maintenance operations is normal practice. Put simply, the interface design should make it easy to do things correctly and hard to make mistakes with serious consequences.

For example, in the case of the Shortmail public messages the difference between private and public messages should be more visible. I would prefer a highly visible change in color at the very least, but maybe also a safety net like a further question like "You asked to make this message public. Are you sure? In the case of social media clients like Tweetdeck and services like Hootsuite I would also like to see a more visible sign of which account you have chosen. Perhaps the active columns could change color or maybe they need large headers with the account name. You could even add safety net features like a warning when you are tweeting a message containing certain words to a client's account.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Generic Smokes: Why Australian Tobacco Branding Initiative Might Not Work

By May 2012 tobacco companies in Australia will be required to package cigarettes in plain olive green packs with the name of the product and the maker written in a standard font. At the same time health warnings will increase from 30% to 70% of the surface. (See "Australia Plans Plain Packaging for Cigarettes" in The Guardian.) The goal of this move is to make smoking less attractive though I doubt that this will have much effect for three reasons.

First of all, smokers don't browse along supermarket shelves looking for an attractive package; normally they ask for a brand they have already chosen and in this choice they are influenced by the image of the brand more than the packaging.

Second, the box is important in a way because it is one way for people to show their choice to other people but when the product ships in plain green boxes it will not take long for people to think of marketing fancy boxes to keep them in. Moving the cigarettes to another box or slipping a sleeve over the green box will cover up the health warnings. Regulating this will be very complex if at all possible.

Finally, I am not convinced that putting cigarettes in a dull green box will make smoking uncool. I my experience it is much more likely that it will make dull green a very cool color in just the same way as ugly military colors are popular with some people because of their associations. And if this doesn't happen by itself I am sure that someone could help make it happen.